Understanding the mechanisms by which climate and predation patterns by top predators co-vary to affect community structure accrues added importance as humans exert growing influence over both climate and regional predator assemblages. In Yellowstone National Park, winter conditions and reintroduced gray wolves (Canis lupus) together determine the availability of winter carrion on which numerous scavenger species depend for survival and reproduction. As climate changes in Yellowstone, therefore, scavenger species may experience a dramatic reshuffling of food resources. As such, we analyzed 55 y of weather data from Yellowstone in order to determine trends in winter conditions. We found that winters are getting shorter, as measured by the number of days with snow on the ground, due to decreased snowfall and increased number of days with temperatures above freezing. To investigate synergistic effects of human and climatic alterations of species interactions, we used an empirically derived model to show that in the absence of wolves, early snow thaw leads to a substantial reduction in late-winter carrion, causing potential food bottlenecks for scavengers. In addition, by narrowing the window of time over which carrion is available and thereby creating a resource pulse, climate change likely favors scavengers that can quickly track food sources over great distances. Wolves, however, largely mitigate late-winter reduction in carrion due to earlier snow thaws. By buffering the effects of climate change on carrion availability, wolves allow scavengers to adapt to a changing environment over a longer time scale more commensurate with natural processes. This study illustrates the importance of restoring and maintaining intact food chains in the face of large-scale environmental perturbations such as climate change. © 2005 Wilmers and Getz.
Wilmers, C. C., & Getz, W. M. (2005). Gray wolves as climate change buffers in Yellowstone. PLoS Biology, 3(4), 0571–0576. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0030092